The heard a detailed lecture Tuesday urging them to save a Jericho landmark that once served as a safe house for runaway slaves.
What's more, the board heard about secret stairways behind linen closets, one of the world's earliest automobile races, and Jericho's Quaker roots dating to the 18th Century. The Quakers' devotion to human rights was the linchpin of the freedom trail called the Underground Railroad.
It all happened at Tuesday's town board meeting when a team of civic leaders and historians made their case for making the old Hicks homestead, better known as the Maine Maid Inn, a town historic landmark. The public hearing brought a broad coalition of speakers who favored the preservation efforts.
Many stressed that the designation would not preclude the shuttered restaurant from being reopened as a viable business, but merely preserve the exterior of the building.
The building itself dates to around 1800 and was the home of Valentine Hicks, abolitionist and a "station master" on the Underground Railroad. The system, championed by Quakers and other abolitionists, was a series of passageways, land and sea routes and safe houses to shuttle runaway slaves northward and, ultimately, to Canada.
Hicks is better known for an actual rail line: He was the second president of the and the namesake for the station and town we call "Hicksville."
In later years the building became a notable area restaurant under a variety of owners and incarnations. It closed more than two years ago and is now in foreclosure, overgrown with brush rising above its first-story windows.
Arguing for the landmark designation included Thomas Abbe, clerk of the Jericho Preparative Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly known as the Quakers. The religious order's local roots date to a small enclave off Jericho Turnpike known as Jericho Corners. He began, as he does at regular Sunday meetings, by asking for a moment of silence to allow God's "Inner Voice" to come over the assembly.
Abbe told the board that many of the Quaker community's original buildings were preserved and are still standing, nestled in a triangle of woods formed by busy Route 25, N.Y. Route 106 and a winding country road known as Old Jericho Turnpike. Preserving the Maine Maid Inn is key to retaining the sense of history of the place, he and others said.
Just up the road, an immaculately preserved meeting house is nestled beside a picturesque cemetery. In this serene, leaf-covered field lies the remains of two centuries of Quaker families. Their eternal resting place is hidden by a ridge, seperating them from a stream of cars speeding along the modern highway.
The historical power-point primer was delivered by Dr. Kathleen G. Velsor, associate professor of the School of Education at the SUNY College at Old Westbury. Velsor has spent 15 years studying Long Island's connection to the Underground Railroad. The common link, she said, is the Quakers, a religious group devoted to equality and freedom of all people.
Among her detailed findings, gleaned from an array of primary sources:
- The Hicks homestead was one of several key stops along the route. Concealed behind a linen closet was a secret stairway to an attic where runaway slaves could rest and find shelter before moving again.
- A Quaker home on Post Road in Old Westbury served as another stop along the route. A wagon with a false bottom was used by the Hicks family to conceal their human cargo beneath piles of flax and hay.
- Runaway slaves were smuggled across Long Island Sound to Westchester via sloops. From there, runaways were shuttled to a kind of no-man's land known as "The Oblong." A two-mile wide border-area had divided English-settled Connecticut from Dutch New York dating to the Colonial era. The Oblong was settled in part by Quaker families.
For Long Island history buffs, it gets even better:
Howard Kroplick, an expert on vintage automobiles, said the Inn at the old Hicks homestead served as a primary grandstand viewing area for the Vanderbilt Cup Races of the early 1900s. Thousands lined the streets in front of the inn to view America's earliest race cars in competition, he said.
Board members listened intently to the 90-minute presentation and agreed to consider granting the designation.